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Southern Front

General Gustavo Socha, the commander of Colombia’s militarized national anti-narcotics police, sat patiently in his Bogotá headquarters while he methodically and meticulously briefed me from a series of colorful, laminated, place-mat-sized maps. The charts depicted recent drug-crop eradications by his forces, each with a date, description of the maneuvers and its corresponding military code name.

Sitting at the epicenter of the largest U.S. military-aid package to Latin America in history, known as Plan Colombia, General Socha effused confidence. “Thanks to the United States, we finally are getting the support we needed,” he said. Now that Colombia was being backed by $1.3 billion U.S. dollars, now that the Americans were shipping down a couple of dozen Blackhawk and Super-Huey choppers, now that the CIA and the DIA and the DEA were openly sharing intelligence with the Colombian government, now that Pentagon advisers were training elite Colombian counter-narcotics battalions, the general said, he was sure that he could meet the U.S. goal of halving the acreage of Colombia’s coca fields in less than five years. American policy planners say this is crucial, given that Colombia is the source of about 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in the U.S. and about 60 percent of the heroin that reaches the East Coast.

And in this eradication crusade, the general said, it mattered little if government troops had to encounter not only the traffickers but also long-standing and tenacious guerrilla forces in the drug fields. No distinction was going to be made between counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency. “I make no differences,” he said as he turned to the maps of the southern Putumayo region. “Anyone who is protecting the growers, the crops, the labs, the chemicals or the transport of drugs, all of them are our targets.”

As we continued to pore over the maps, it became clear that in this conflict — unlike Vietnam — real or imagined victories are not marked by tallying up equally unsubstantiated enemy “body counts.” No, the government side takes way too many casualties to go down that path. Instead, the general revealed to me a complex formula he has cooked up to “prove” the effectiveness of his work.

After each aerial fumigation of crops, a “scientific” estimate is made of how many acres of either coca leaf or opium poppy has been expunged. Then a breakdown is made of just how many “doses” of the final drug product have been erased, supposedly, from the world market and thereby blocked from the bloodstream of users.

And so, as General Socha flipped the charts, the dose count soared. In 1999, 10,000 acres of fields were sprayed, 1.5 million doses destroyed in one small field, 2.5 million in another, and 360 million doses out of another big operation. And then, in 2000, a radical escalation: 10,000 acres of poppy fumigated, “removing 4,627 billion doses of heroin from sale,” General Socha affirmed. And some 100,000 acres of coca leaf, which, he said, “destroyed 3,368 billion cocaine doses.”

And there you have it: 3.368 trillion plus 4.627 trillion doses. Or, totaled up, slightly more than 8 trillion doses of cocaine and heroin destroyed by the Colombian military, they claim, in just the last two years. Enough product to satisfy — or starve — the habits of all hard-drug users in the world for at least several months.

Yet, no market shortages, no rise in cocaine or heroin prices, have been registered since these supposedly devastating blows have been struck by the U.S.-backed Colombian forces. In fact, for cocaine, the price on the street, the free-market’s best barometer of supply, has never been lower.

But no matter. The U.S. penchant for pursuing an internationalized Drug War, centered around Colombia, seems in no way abated. It was the Clinton administration, with its single-minded emphasis on attacking the supply side of drug cultivation rather than the demand side of consumption, that set Plan Colombia in motion. Now the Bush administration has posted prohibitionist hawks at the top of its anti-drug agencies, and seems more than likely to pursue or perhaps escalate these same policies.

That these policies are likely to do nothing to reduce drug use in the United States is the near-universal conclusion reached by those who have taken the time to analyze similar overseas anti-narcotics crusades in recent history. But what is becoming ever clearer is that the American plunge into Colombia is likely to produce some very destructive collateral damage. As a result of Plan Colombia, drug production will most likely be further scattered, to spread and prosper throughout the region. And the already tattered social fabric of Colombia, stretched by 40 years of unending political and social violence and bloody guerrilla war, will only be further shredded. “U.S. drug policy has been screwing up Colombia for 20 years,” says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of San Francisco’s Lindesmith Center Drug Policy Foundation, an anti–Drug War advocacy group. “By now that policy has turned Colombia into Chicago under Al Capone, times 10. The drug prohibitionists who have shaped U.S. policy have made our problems Colombia’s problems.”

 

The increased U.S. military aid, intelligence and technical training were all inaugurated December 19 with an unprecedented Colombian military “push” into the southern region of Putumayo — center of the coca-growing region. The plan was multifold. A freshly minted detachment of American-trained troops, backed by American-supplied helicopters, would first clear the area of the leftist guerrillas who have entwined themselves into the coca-producing areas (and who claim to be protecting the way of life of the impoverished subsistence-level coca farmers). With the insurgents cleared, fumigation aircraft flown by American and other civilian contract pilots would then spray the large “industrial-sized” coca crops. The smaller, family-held cultivations, the government said, would be uprooted by gentle negotiations. Those growers would be enticed to give up coca in exchange for subsidies — paid with U.S. aid funds — to grow more traditional cash crops such as rice and fruit.

Even as this push got under way, some Colombian critics were warning that the whole strategy was misconceived, that, in essence, it was a plan to “fumigate poverty” — or, more precisely, the poor. Contrary to the official government line, they said, the overwhelming majority of coca cultivation in southern Colombia lies in the hands of small families who otherwise have little possibility of surviving. Bogota-based human-rights activist Carlos de Roux warned, “What we are really talking about is attacking small coca growers on a mass scale, without providing them with any real economic support.”

His fears seem to be materializing. In mid-February, a few weeks after I met with General Socha, the Colombian Army trumpeted an early victory in its initial Plan Colombia offensive into the south. An official Army press release said that eradication efforts were roaring along far ahead of schedule and that some 72,000 acres of illegal plantations had been killed off since the U.S.-backed push got underway in mid-December. The press release added that the entire operation had been “carried out without any incident to date with farmers and settlers.”

But follow-up investigations give lie to the military boasts and seriously question the underpinnings of the U.S. strategy. After an on-site tour of the sprayed areas, BBC correspondent Jeremy McDermott reported that “vast swaths of southern Colombia now look like desert” and that “there is evidence that legal crops are being destroyed too.” With the ground now covered with toxic glyphosates, McDermott estimated that some 10,000 campesinos had fled from the zone as the spraying increased. And local leaders said that the $68.5 million in promised U.S. funds to help the farmers switch over to legal crops had yet to arrive.

Even more damaging to Plan Colombia were published reports suggesting that peasant planters were re-seeding coca fields as fast, or faster, than they could be destroyed. Indeed, overall coca production is actually increasing in Colombia. Citing a joint UN-Colombian satellite study, a mid-May issue of the respected Colombia magazine Cambio revealed that the area devoted to coca production has actually increased over the year 2000 to some 400,000 acres, and that Colombia’s overall cocaine production capacity had risen to as much as 900 tons a year, eclipsing an earlier estimate of 580 tons.

Says Winifred Tate, who until recently was the lead researcher on Colombia for the Washington Office on Latin America, “The Colombia government is lying when it tells you how many acres it has eradicated. It’s a big shell game, and no serious person can trust their numbers.”

These new estimates of unhindered coca production not only tarnish the Colombian government’s credibility, but also confront the Bush administration with a rather ominous choice: Either recognize that Plan Colombia is failing or dramatically ratchet it up. “Next year is the one I’m worried about,” says Adam Isacson of the Center for International Policy, a Washington-based think tank. “When all the choppers sent this year are operational, and all the new battalions have been trained, and when failure becomes evident, who knows what we will see coming out of Congress? Especially in a congressional election year with every politician in sight talking tough on drugs.”

At least for the moment, the new Bush White House has chosen a third course: Neither back down nor escalate, but rather regionalize the South American Drug War. In its proposed next round of funding allocation, called the Andean Counter-Narcotics Initiative, the administration is asking to maintain current aid levels. And a 24 percent decrease in military funding to Colombia is being offset by considerable increases in anti-drug funding to Colombia’s neighbors: Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela.

 

It’s the balloon effect. Squeeze hard enough on Colombia and drug production pushes out on the margins. Sanho Tree, anti–Drug War researcher at the Institute for Policy Studies, uses a different metaphor. “We knew there was a hornet’s nest in southern Colombia,” Tree says. “So we took a billion-dollar stick and beat on the hornet’s nest, and now — surprise, surprise — there are hornets everywhere.”

Just to cite one example: U.N. drug officials in Lima say the next “logical move” for the coca-growing industry is to move back into Peru, where 150,000 acres of abandoned coca fields are ripe and ready for replanting and could be fully operational in a few short months. Increased drug activity is also being reported on the Ecuadorian border.

This regionalization isn’t anything new. The U.S. Drug War intensified a decade ago in Peru and Bolivia, and Plan Colombia has already activated four new so-called Forward Operating Locations — U.S. military intelligence outposts in Aruba, Ecuador, El Salvador and Curaçao.

Most disturbing, considering the history of similar adventures, is that Bush is already bending the truth in pressing the new proposals. The administration strains to point out, for example, that the next round of Andean funding has a somewhat reduced emphasis on the military. What it doesn’t say is that while Clinton’s Plan Colombia was a limited two-year supplemental allocation, the new initiative is quietly folded into the regular annual budgeting process — signaling, perhaps, the beginning of prolonged U.S. military involvement in the region.

When the Clinton administration advanced its militarized Drug War program for Colombia two years ago, there were widespread fears it would aggravate that country’s already horrendous human-rights record. The U.S. was wading into the four-decades-deep quagmire of social and political violence that has crowned Colombia with the world’s highest murder and kidnap rate.

Since the early 1960s, leftist guerrilla groups, led by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), have fought a dogged rural war. And the FARC’s strategy of “protecting” the small coca growers and “taxing” the traffickers has produced not only millions in revenue but also a heavily-equipped army that has grown to more than 15,000 combatants. President Andres Pastrana, elected three years ago, has struggled to maintain peace talks with the guerrillas, but so far to little avail.

Counter-guerrilla death squads, the so-called “paramilitaries,” have also swollen in size in recent years, and now number as many as 11,000 men. Often backed by large narco-traffickers, the paramilitaries have in the past been nurtured as well by the Colombian military. And their hallmark has been a series of massacres of villagers and farmers they brand as guerrilla sympathizers. President Pastrana has vowed to end any such collaboration, and the U.S. has publicly demanded the same.

But since the onset of Plan Colombia, “There has been only a marked and continuing deterioration of human rights,” says Andrew Miller of Amnesty USA. “Not only did the guerrillas react to U.S. aid as to an act of war, but the paramilitaries have gone full blast in their strategy of spreading themselves, and bloodshed, throughout the entire country.”

The U.S. aid package — like similar funding adventures in the 1980s, in Central America — is supposedly dependent on Washington “certifying” human-rights advances every six months. No advances, no funding — on paper at least. But as was also the case in El Salvador, the U.S. legislation allows the White House to waive human-rights certification. That’s exactly what Clinton did in August 2000. “It seems that waiving human rights gave a green light to the Colombian military and paramilitaries to continue with business as usual,” says Miller.

Since the beginning of this year, the paramilitary death squads have gone on their bloodiest rampage ever, setting new standards of barbarity. And any fiction that the Colombian military is somehow standing in the way of such butchery is just that: fiction. In the same 24-hour period in January when Clinton was known to be considering a re-affirmation of the human-rights pass, paramilitary squads entered the northern area of Chengue, took out 26 people and beat them with stones and sliced them with machetes, carrying off another 10 people after setting the whole town on fire.

And then, during Easter week, a band of 200 paramilitaries swarmed through a series of villages in the state of Cauca and, this time using not only machetes and guns but also chain saws, butchered at least 27 people and perhaps more than 40 over a three-day period. Copious documentation and statements from local human-rights workers, reported by mainstream news agencies including the Associated Press, clearly suggest that the Colombia military in the area had advance warning of the attack but did nothing to prevent it.

 

This spring, the U.S. State Department finally got around to identifying the Colombian paramilitaries in its category of lesser “terrorists.” And yet there has been no alteration in policy. “The U.S. is breaking its own laws,” says Winifred Tate. “It continues to deliver equipment to army units engaged in gross human-rights abuses, to units involved directly in the area where these abuses take place. And if nothing else, millions of U.S. dollars are supporting the Colombian intelligence apparatus without any oversight — the same apparatus that has cooperated in, and sometimes coordinated, the killing of so many of Colombia’s most courageous activists.”

President Bush will once again have to waive, or certify, human rights next year. No one has any doubts which he’ll do.

Political opposition to the U.S. Drug War in Colombia is anemic on Capitol Hill. While expanding American military involvement in Colombia originally sprang from the Republican side of the aisle, the Democrats soon embraced the cause. The eventual Senate debate in favor of funding Plan Colombia was bolstered by an exercised Democratic Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, who concentrated his rhetorical fire not against conservatives, but against the few liberals who questioned the strategy.

The toughest questioner of all was Minnesota Democrat Paul Wellstone, who unsuccessfully tried to shift a portion of the proposed Plan Colombia funding toward domestic drug-treatment programs. Wellstone has continued his mostly lonely fight since, but few politicians are willing to speak out against a policy portrayed as “anti-drugs.” And President Bush has proved a subtle drug warrior, emphasizing prevention in a May 11 address on the drug policy while maintaining the government’s fiscal commitment to its war footing abroad.

Still, Wellstone is hoping that the arrival of Republicans in the White House will grease the way for renewed criticism. “With a new administration, at least there’s an opportunity, the potential to re-examine policy,” Wellstone says. Specifically with respect to Colombia, he says, “I have had several senators come up to me and say they have had second thoughts. And this new Republican administration certainly gives Democrats more room to be critical.”

Some signs of life in the opposition have flickered recently. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) came out swinging in mid-May, saying that Plan Colombia was nothing but an expensive failure that had fueled right-wing paramilitaries in Colombia while scoring only “negligible” anti-drug results. “We give more aid to the military. They give more aid to the paramilitaries,” Leahy said. “[And] the paramilitaries are involved with the atrocities.”

The new administration has proved politically adroit here as well, striving to stanch congressional and public criticism in part by outsourcing much of its policy to private contractors. Hundreds of millions of the Plan Colombia dollars go to private companies like DynCorp, AirScan and Military Professional Resources Inc., which provide contract pilots, advisers, trainers, technicians and search-and-rescue teams to the effort. Privatization of the conflict also allows the Pentagon to do an end-run around the legislative measure that caps at 500 the number of American service personnel that can be sent to Colombia.

This murky aspect of the strategy came to light first * last February when DynCorp pilots in Colombia stumbled into a firefight with guerrilla forces. And then in April, when a Peruvian jet shot down an American missionary plane mistaken as a drug flight, it was learned that the CIA employees who had provided intelligence on that mission were also private contractors.

Now House Democrat Jan Schakowsky of Illinois is sponsoring a bill that would ban these private companies from having a role in the Drug War. “American taxpayers already pay $300 billion a year to fund the world’s most powerful military,” says Schakowsky. “Why should they pay a second time in order to privatize our operations?”

But this congressional resistance cannot yet be considered as anything more than sniper fire. The Bush administration, meanwhile, is expected to lobby hard for current policy. Recently, it deftly packed off more than a dozen Congress members to Colombia, giving them better-than-Disney rides on one of the hi-tech Blackhawk choppers. And the appointment by President Bush of ultra-prohibitionist John Walters as national drug czar would seem to signal no imminent de-escalation in the internationalization of the U.S. Drug War.

The official U.S. strategy is leveraged on the notion that peace in Colombia can come only after the Drug War is successful. But that ignores the history of strife there, and the failure of the latter-day prohibitionists here. At best, Plan Colombia will only hasten the migration of drug production from Colombia to some other platform while perhaps causing the price of cocaine to spike, making the trade that much more profitable. And it will do nothing to bring peace to the Colombian countryside.

 

“This Drug War is a war with no exit strategy,” says Sanho Tree of the Institute for Policy Studies. “With no definable goals that mark a clear victory, how can we say what victory looks like? And if we don’t know what victory looks like, then how will we recognize defeat? I would argue that defeat is what we have been staring in the face now for many years.”

Meanwhile in Colombia, a negotiated political and peace settlement remains a steep test for all involved. For his part, President Pastrana, with barely a year left in office, must at a minimum get serious about a crackdown on the paramilitaries and cleanse his military of death-squad collaborators.

Some viable space must be opened for the political left, and a more social-democratic alternative must be found to the conservative, free-market policies that have only painfully accentuated Colombia’s historic inequalities. The mass cultivation of coca in Colombia reflects not a criminal society, but an impoverished one.

For now, the guns and the chopper blades are still louder than the voices of dialogue and reconciliation. “If you pick your head up against the military, you can get it blown off by the paras,” says a discouraged Mauricio Vargas, a columnist for Gabriel García Márquez’s weekly magazine, Cambio. “And if you are on the left, where can you go? You are squeezed between a government and a guerrilla army, neither of which you can support. All the conditions here are ripe for eternal war.”

The end product, then, is a literal and intellectual diaspora. Everyone who can is bailing as quickly as he or she can from Loco–lombia. Flights out, to Europe and the U.S., are overbooked. The foreign embassies are overrun with visa requests.

American military advisers, contract employees, and drug and intelligence agents are about the only hapless souls nowadays coming in to Colombia. And as the Colombians leave (one out of two says he would if he could) and the gringos come in, the society further unravels. Private security, search-and-rescue services and drug trafficking are the only growth industries left as the economy continues in free fall. The streets are clogged with vendors, hawkers, hustlers and pickpockets. What’s left of the intelligentsia can mostly be found in taxis — sitting behind the wheel. That’s where you’ll find Colombia’s falling and shrinking professional middle class trying to hang on: engineers, chemists, accountants and lawyers. Even an occasional retired police official. Like one former anti-narcotics detective who spent five years working side-by-side with the DEA in the heyday of operations against the Cali and Medellin cartels. “Plan Colombia? Yeah, I know what that is,” he says, laughing as he completes his graveyard shift. “I know the Americans well. And I know what Plan Colombia really is. It’s mostly about maintaining full budgets for the U.S. military. What else?”


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